Women undergoing in vitro fertilization can increase their chances of becoming pregnant by up to 65 percent if they also have acupuncture, a preliminary study suggests.
About 10 percent to 15 percent of couples have difficulty conceiving, and many opt for in vitro fertilization, in which a woman's egg is fertilized in a laboratory and then transferred into her womb. There had been some evidence that acupuncture can increase the success rate of this procedure.
"Complementing the embryo transfer process with acupuncture seems to increase the odds of pregnancy by 65 percent, compared to sham acupuncture or no adjuvant treatment," said lead researcher Eric Manheimer, a research associate at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine.
For the study, Manheimer's team looked at seven trials that included 1,366 women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Each trial compared acupuncture given within one day of the embryo transfer, to sham acupuncture or no acupuncture.
The researchers found that women who had acupuncture increased their chances of becoming pregnant by 65 percent compared with women who had no acupuncture or sham acupuncture.
"In absolute terms, this means that 10 women would need to be treated with acupuncture to result in one additional pregnancy," Manheimer said.
However, in studies where pregnancy rates were high, the benefit of acupuncture was small and non-significant, the researchers noted.
The findings were published online in the Feb. 7 edition of the British Medical Journal.
"Acupuncture may be useful adjuvant treatment in the IVF process," Manheimer said. "However, I think there needs to be more studies to confirm these findings, because they are still preliminary," he added.
One reproduction expert cautioned that it's not clear if acupuncture improves the success of IVF, with studies showing both that it does and doesn't work.
"I approach this paper with hopefulness. I hope it would be borne out to be true that acupuncture boosts pregnancy rates," said Dr. Owen K. Davis, co-director and associate professor at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.
There are a lot of IVF patients undergoing acupuncture, relatively few of them at the suggestion of doctors, Davis said. "More often, it's something they seek themselves. Obviously, anything that can help our patients is something I'm very excited about. On the other hand, this study has many flaws," he said.
Davis thinks a large, randomized study is needed to really answer the question.
"I don't think we can say conclusively that acupuncture is effective or is anywhere near being a standard care, but it's not something I would discourage someone from trying if they wanted to. But I'm far removed from prescribing it to patients," he said.
One acupuncturist said the study findings bear out his own experience in using acupuncture to increase the success of IVF.
"I'm not surprised by these findings," said Dr. Marshall H. Sager, past president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. "I've done acupuncture and infertility and been successful a number of times."
Sager thinks all women undergoing in vitro fertilization can benefit from acupuncture. "I think you are increasing the chances of success," he said.